The Philippines offers a travelling academic extended tuition in the sensual sociology of food.
In the gloaming of a mid-winter evening, I feel that I’m at a rock concert. Actually, I’m jiving to the sounds of Steppenwolf’s hit Born to Be Wild in the art gallery of Melbourne’s La Trobe University amid a brilliant display of contemporary art from the Philippines, India and Australia.
But, hold on, these words are not quite what I remember from the original. What’s going on?
The live band playing certainly isn’t the great Steppenwolf, but they are on fire. They’re a locally acclaimed outfit called the Histrionics, led by a bespectacled singer called Danius Kesminas. Immediately I take to him because, his energy aside, under his suit he is wearing a T-shirt that reads “Crimes against Humanities”.
The Histrionics continue an Australian tradition of joke bands. But their style is less joke and more satire. No, that’s too mild: their message is scorn for the post-Steppenwolf generation. Kesminas, who once taught at an art college, is particularly barbed. His version of the 1968 hit is called Taught to be Mild and his chorus runs like this:
“Like a true art school child
We were taught, taught to be mild.
But we’re satisfied,
We’ll never ask why,
Taught to be mild.”
The shimmer of Manila — colour, sun, people, rain — makes it difficult to get the proverbial grip on the place. And I certainly didn’t get it until I caught my first sight of a Jeepnee — “A what?” you may well ask.
Officially, they’re Manila’s chief form of transport and, like the combi-taxis in South Africa, they run regular routes across this city’s extensive network of concrete highways. Originally, they were purpose rebuilt from United States Army surplus Jeeps — hence the name — but these days they’re more likely to be retreaded Japanese trucks shipped here and then chopped up in backyard body shops.
From the comfort of a combi it is the unofficial role of the Jeepnee that interests me most. This is because they’re works of art — magnificently decorated in all possible shades, slogans and signs and adorned with shrines: each Jeepnee is a veritable mobile piece of art, but with a twist — each carries a genuflection to Christ or the Virgin.
The centuries-long hold of Catholicism over the Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7 000 islands, is everywhere to be seen.
In the Colayco Pavilion at Ateneo de Manila University, I stop to watch a clutch of students struggle with the 1970 Beatles hit Let It Be. One reason is that their keyboard player is no Billie Preston, whose great keyboard talent anchored the original.
But the words seem quite unfamiliar to these youngsters. They smile and wave. Do they know that this grey-haired old white guy raved to the same song when he was their age?
But a second question is the more interesting. Do they know, I wonder, that the Beatles once visited Manila? It was 1966 and the Fab Four were returning from a tour to Japan. The Manila leg was a disaster. Their manager, the troubled Brian Epstein, was at his most neurotic and, though they played to a packed audience in a football stadium, they escaped a riot at the airport on their departure, coming within an inch of their lives.
The usual suspects were to blame: an authoritarian democracy, drink, drugs, rock ‘n roll. And it didn’t help that they snubbed Imelda Marcos, the president’s wife, who was then at the beginning of her long, long hold over Filipino politics.
Robert Nery, an Australian-Filipino filmmaker, has made a movie of the visit. The rough cut is a long rambling piece interspersed with terrific insights into the mixing of cultural codes during the early Marcos years.
The Ateneo de Manila University is a sprawling campus on what was once the outskirts of the city. Its high fences and policed gates keep the grey concrete and black tar of the city away from its lush lawns and green trees.
Once upon a time the Ateneo (as it is colloquially called) was in the city centre and it was there that Filipino national hero and liberator José Rizal was a student. This year is the sesquicentennial anniversary of Rizal’s birth – this says how old the Ateneo is.
Spanish Catholics brought education, including higher education, to the Philippines from the mid-1500s onwards. The Ateneo (translated as the Athenaeum) is in the Catholic tradition, which explains, perhaps, why this campus houses a primary school, a high school and the university. What is that old Jesuit maxim: “Give me a child for his first seven years and I’ll give you the man”?
The traveller’s nightmare struck last night – troubled teeth. Across the highway from the Ateneo, I spy a sign that reads “Oabel-David Dental Clinic”. Shall I chance it? I do. And it pays off.
As she tends my tender spots, Dr Marivic David-Oabel tells me that she and her husband, who comes from a long line of dentists, both graduated from the nearby University of the Philippines. Alas, their only child, a boy, has eschewed dentistry, to study management across the road at the Ateneo.
Gently she chides me, not for the oral hygiene that put me in her chair, but for consorting with the Jesuits!
I can’t help wondering whether her great skill isn’t, perhaps, helped by the good side of the United States’ influence in the Philippines. The long love-hate relationship between the Philippines and the US began with the former’s annexation in 1898, and the recruiting of Americans to teach Filipinos at all levels and in all trades and professions commenced in 1901.
So, the Jeep in the word “Jeepnee” aside, there is much of the US here, too.
This is to be a day for the soul and the belly. We’re set to visit cathedrals, a mosque, St Thomas University (founded in 1611), a traditional Filipino house and much more besides.
Each place of worship is built in a different historical period – and each has a distinct motive and story to tell. But our interest is caught by the queues of glittering wedding parties at each stop. A rumour runs through our group that the costs of maintaining these old buildings is high and Saturday weddings are a source of regular income.
Following my 23-year practice in cathedrals, I buy a candle to light for Beth, our daughter, who was born a Catholic.
In the Café Ysabel, a lithe professor with an expertise in things comparative has organised a practical course in the sociology of food. A specially designed menu, with parallel courses from appetiser to main dishes, is served, the idea being to trace the origins of Filipino dishes. So, kinilaw na tuna (tuna with sea salt, Davao style) is served with boquerones (anchovies in olive oil, Madrid style); pancit molo, a chicken broth, compares with wonton soup. Then a pork and chicken dish called adobo alongside the Spanish adobado; chicken inasal compares with Indonesian-style ayam panggang; kare-kare, a beef dish, is set against a Thai curry; a vegetarian course called bringhe is eaten alongside an Indian biryani; and, finally, ice cream (obviously American).
Not surprisingly, I feel as if I need a postprandial walk but, alas, no luck. We’re shepherded back to waiting combis. It takes two more tourist stops and almost colliding with one of Manila’s mobile objets d’art before we reach the Ateneo and fall into bed.
Peter Vale is professor of humanities, University of Johannesburg.